Hidden up the side entrance via a set of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it stairs at Surry Hills’ legendary Bar Cleveland sits one of the newest additions to Sydney’s dining scene, Sofia on Cleveland. A Mediterranean oasis that delivers a combination of traditionally inspired dishes in a space that’s perfectly suited to resurrecting another much-loved tradition – the long lunch.
As traditions go, the long lunch was the kind of pre-COVID indulgence that has been waiting to make a good comeback. It represented the best possible scenario: there was no place better to be and no requirement to be anywhere else. Especially when taken on a Friday. While its return has been slow on the uptake, slower than our relish for brunches, it’s arrival back on the scene courtesy of venues such as Sofia marks a turning point: Sydney is getting its groove back.
That Bar Cleveland would be ground zero for this shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone familiar with the venue. The iconic location has been a beacon of good times for locals, having withstood rising rates, lockouts and lockdowns. According to Sophie, the timing of opening Sofia at the end of a year that, for most hospitality groups, was far from booming wasn’t so much testing fate but reading the room. It was also technically meant to happen much sooner.
“We have been at Bar Cleveland for over 35 years and have watched the area change and evolve over this time,” says Sophie. “We were aware of people living around our establishment that would enjoy and appreciate a lovely space and have always appreciated quality food and drinks, therefore when the time came to decide how to renovate the upstairs space we decided the time was right for something special for our neighbourhood. The renovation was scheduled to begin at the time of the first lockdown, so it took us a lot longer to renovate than what we had originally planned for.”
A deliberately sparse decor that reveals and revels in the bones of the heritage building, Sofia balances comfort with utilitarian elements to keep the space modern and functional while celebrating its deep-rooted history. Despite its Greek-inspired menu, the restaurant is free from artifice. It’s only conceit, the replica olive trees that decorate the lounge area.
Helmed by Chef Justin North and owned by Bar Cleveland team Sophie and Con Bousgas, the idea behind Sofia is rooted in nostalgia: named for Sophie’s grandmother, Sofia, the Greek-inspired menu draws on the familiar Southern Mediterranean flavours of Sophie’s childhood visiting her grandmother in southern Greece.
“My grandmother was an excellent home cook that used only seasonal fresh ingredients often sourced from her own farms,” says Sophie. “She also raised their own farm animals. During my stay with them, my grandmother spent precious time with me teaching me how to cook some of her favourite local dishes.”
To develop the menu, North explains that the approach had to be collaborative in order to both honour the memory of Sofia as well deliver the best in local ingredients for Sydney diners: “Essentially the conversations were based around a desire to root the menu in coastal Mediterranean cuisine but draw on the history and heritage of Sophie and Con’s background and passion. Head chef Nathan has also been heavily involved in this process.”
Once you step inside Sofia, first point of order is to know which drink to begin your experience with. For Sophie, this is a Noah’s Ark cocktail. While the wine list has been masterfully curated by North, Sophie, Con and their son Dimitri this cocktail, says Sophie, is perfect for setting the mood. “I always begin with my favourite cocktail, Noah’s Ark, inspired by the Turkish delight or Loukoumi as we call it in Greek, it instantly transports my senses to the sweet aromas of Europe and Turkey.”
From the delightfully fleshed-out menu, highlights (according to both Sophie and North) include the olive oil served with bread (or poured over any of the other dishes on the menu). With hits of extra pepper and sourced directly from the family farm in Greece, it is a food group in and of itself.
Seafood lovers will be well pleased with the grilled octopus served up on romesco with charred chorizo and chilli garlic greens. The slow cooked lamb ribs practically melt in your mouth while the chicken, also slow cooked but in brine, is deliciously tender.
According to Sophie, both the oil and the lamb carry much of the spirit of her grandmother in their taste and inspiration.
“I would say the platter of olive oil and warm sourdough bread would definitely capture that [memory of my grandmother],” says Sophie. “Also the Horta brings back wonderful memories of my grandmother and myself foraging for these wild greens and then cooking them up these were always served with fresh lemon juice and plenty of extra virgin olive oil!
“The lamb ribs would definitely of been my grandmothers favourite meal cooked over the wood fired bbq.”
For those with a sweet tooth, the desserts are generously portioned allowing you to dive in with gusto but the standout clearly being the Ekmek baked kataifi pastry with vanilla custard and Chantilly cream.
That next long lunch can’t come soon enough.
Level 2, 433 Cleveland St
(Above Bar Cleveland)
Redfern NSW 2016